As impenetrable as Philadelphia’s defense seemed at times earlier in the series, it’s not. There are cracks — Tyrese Maxey, for example, doesn’t have the size to hang with any of Toronto’s giant wings in the post. He can’t protect the rim as a helper or tagger. One crack doesn’t make an entire wall topple over, but it does when you toss a stick of dynamite in there and plug your ears.
If Pascal Siakam is the hand guiding the assault, the fire that lights the fuse, then Scottie Barnes at times served as the dynamite. Early in the game, Maxey guarded Barnes, who simply stepped into the post, received the ball, squared his hips, and tossed in easy money. Easy money is hard to find in the playoffs! Barnes threw an identical post hook over James Harden, who is usually a fantastic post defender, but is far too small to contest a fully outstretched Barnes. If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank — safe and sound, soon that tuppence safely invested in the bank will compound.
Later, the Sixers had to shade the structure of their defense towards Barnes while Maxey tried to front or three-quarter to make the entry pass come over the top, which Embiid could steal from behind. Forcing the Sixers into that setup is the compound interest of the earlier post work. Gary Trent jr., the would-be entry passer, simply reversed the ball to a now-empty side of the floor, and a simple pick and roll between Siakam and Khem Birch yielded dividends.
As the Sixers’ defense contracted to protect the paint, Toronto’s offense slowly congealed into the Siakam-centric show:
“Just give him the ball, get out of the way,” said OG Anunoby about Siakam. “He’s a really talented player. He can score from anywhere. And he makes his teammates better, so he led us to a victory today.”
Meanwhile, the Raptors’ jumpers never got out of the starting gate. With Fred VanVleet sidelined and Anunoby and Trent missing their threes, the paint shrunk and shrunk until Toronto’s offensive possessions looked like they were trying to put newborn clothes on a three-month-old. Basically, no one could reach the rim, especially Siakam, who was swarmed by three defenders at minimum.
Enter Barnes again. He started ducking in on the baseline to coincide with the moment when Siakam’s drives ran into the wall. The first benefit was a Siakam pass for a Barnes jam, and then later he acted as the release valve to ping the ball to the other side for a cleaner look from deep.
“You want to have a rim presence,” said Nick Nurse after the game. “And usually a cutter can draw in another perimeter guy. Sometimes a cutter will draw two guys because it’s kind of confusing — sometimes it’s tough to figure out who’s supposed to take ‘em… So it’s important. I mean, we’ve worked on that a lot.
“If they can figure out where they’re at and cut in there behind it, you know, it keeps ‘em honest and it keeps good floor balance and floor spacing.”
Dynamite can come in all sorts of shapes and forms, and sometimes it’s an off-ball player ducking underneath the fray to jump in a sewer grate. Eventually, the wall toppled into dust and a naked, shivering rim and Philadelphia fans shuffling to the exits with heaps of time left in the game. Siakam and Precious Achiuwa waltzed past Embiid for layups at ease. The Sixers tried to make a run of it, but Barnes threw two lob passes to shut the crowd out of the game. The first came in the half-court as the crowd was at its loudest — Barnes blew past his defender, drew the center help, looked to the cutter coming from the left corner, and tossed it up to the cutter coming from the right corner. The second came in transition to more or less end the game. It, of course, was a no-look as well.
Ultimately, there was far more to Toronto’s oppressive win in Game 5. Among the five closers, Barnes actually had the fewest points. Siakam, of course, was the superstar upon whom the entire balance rested. Achiuwa provided the biggest highlights. But Barnes opened up the floor for everyone. Though he was limited, even limping towards the end of the game, he still played 40 minutes, the second-most on Toronto behind Siakam. It helped that his defense was close enough to perfect, rotating crisply, tracking the ball, and swiping everything that came into his zone. That’s rare for anyone, let alone a rookie. He finished with three steals.
Barnes now has the second-best plus-minus among big-minute Raptors. They’ve won his minutes on the court (+6) and lost his minutes on the bench (-21). Even without a reliable jumper, even without the ball, even without two working ankles: He remains Toronto’s rim pressure. He is the dynamite that shreds Philadelphia’s defensive process. Siakam could be the dynamite in the same way as Barnes, but then there would be no one to light the fuse, no hand to guide the offense. Anunoby similarly could duck in on the baseline, post up mismatches (he did in the first quarter), and provide Toronto’s rim pressure without the ball. But he, too, is busy being half of Toronto’s long-distance pressure. Barnes is the only one at the moment with the requisite resume who’s not previously employed.
And he hasn’t yet been fully unleashed. Barnes scored 15 points on six shots against the Sixers in Game 1 before his injury. He dished eight assists. He has far more levels to which he can climb when his burst returns to his ankle. That will come. For now, he simply has to be. Soon, he will become increasingly vital. If Toronto is going to win two more games — which actually feels possible at this point — Barnes will need to give more, to score more in the post, to duck in for more layups, to attack more on the offensive glass. Does anyone doubt that he can? And this is Barnes at 20 years old.
Don’t allow your expectations to poison your fandom of Barnes. It’s happened quite vividly to one of his teammates. Barnes may well become a superstar in the next four or five years — whether it’s in the mold of Magic Johnson or Scottie Pippen or Giannis Antetokounmpo remains to be seen. But even if he doesn’t, he’s already a terrific player. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, and similarly, don’t let the future be the enemy of the present. And in that present, he’s already turning a playoff series against an extraordinary opponent in Joel Embiid. With the room and capability to do a whole lot more in coming games. Barnes is an all-time rookie. So why not an all-time comeback?